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How do you stop a child choking?

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It’s a nightmare scenario for many parents – a child choking and unable to breathe and the parent powerless to help. But what could a parent do in a child choking situation? What are some common causes of choking in small children and infants, and what can be done to prevent it? And if a child is choking and struggling to breathe, what can you do to help them?

What size is a choking hazard for kids?

This can depend on the child’s age, although as a broad rule of thumb, the objects most likely to be a choking hazard for small children tend to be somewhere between 1cm and 3.5cm in size. That’s as small as the top of your little finger, up to about the width of a 20c coin. Objects in this size range are small enough to fit in a child’s mouth but potentially too large to be swallowed – potentially blocking the windpipe.

For an infant, even smaller objects can be a hazard. The size of an infant’s windpipe is generally no wider than an average drinking straw! This means that an object as small as a peanut can potentially be a life-threatening child choking hazard.

What are the most common choking hazards for children?

There are two common ways that a child might end up choking on an object – either by attempting to eat it, or by placing the object in their mouth for exploration, amusement, or nervous habit.

Some of the most common food items to cause choking in children are:

  • Chunks of meat
  • Pieces of hot dog or frankfurt (one of the most common choking hazards for children)
  • Large chunks of fruit or vegetable
  • Highly sticky foods such as peanut butter
  • Whole grapes
  • Soft lollies
  • Hard candy
  • Nuts

Chunks of soft food (such as grapes or pieces of meat or frankfurt) should be cut up into smaller, more manageable pieces to prevent your child choking. For an infant, it’s best to mash food into a slippery paste. You shouldn’t give small, hard food items like nuts or hard candy to young children at all. Hard candy causes nearly a fifth of choking related ED visits for children.

  • Non-food objects that are common choking hazards for small children include:
  • Small, hard objects such as coins and small batteries
  • Toys with small parts (like Lego)
  • Small balls & marbles
  • Balloons (a leading cause of child choking death in the US)
  • Bottle caps
  • Small stones and pebbles
  • Jewellery

Ensuring these objects are stored up high and out of reach of children (and only touched while under supervision) can go a long way to protect your child from choking.

How to tell if a child is choking

A small child or infant is often unable to signal that they’re choking. With their windpipe blocked, they’re often unable to cry out or signal for help, and younger children might not even understand what’s happening to them.

A choking child will probably show visible distress and have trouble breathing, speaking and swallowing (with might not be easy to see). They might be coughing or wheezing or visibly gagging. They might clutch at the neck, and if they’re breathing at all, it might have a whistling or “crowing” sound to it. If they’ve been struggling to breathe for a little while, you might see a blue tinge on their face, lips, neck or even fingernails.

If you see any of these signs, you should be responding immediately.

What to do if a child is choking

In some cases, the situation might not be life-threatening, even if the child starts to panic. You should encourage the child to remain calm and try to dislodge the object by coughing.

If you’re unable to dislodge the object by coughing, have someone call 000 as soon as possible (particularly for an infant) – an Ambulance will take time to reach you, and a child who is struggling to breathe is in significant danger.

If the child isn’t breathing at all, place them face down on your lap with their head lower than their chest. For an older child (5 and up), place them on their side. Give four sharp blows on the back between the shoulder blades – this will force out what air is currently in the lungs and hopefully push out the blockage.

Do not attempt the Heimlich Manoeuvre on a child (squeezing or hitting the child in the abdomen) as this can seriously damage internal organs unless you know exactly what you’re doing. Leave that to the paramedics.

When should I take my child to the ER for choking?

Choking is a life-threatening condition, particularly for children. If you are unable to dislodge the blockage with the steps above, you should call an ambulance rather than attempting to take the child to the hospital yourself. Calling 000 and having paramedics come directly to you will be much faster than going to the ED yourself.

If you have managed to resolve the choking situation without medical assistance, you might still need to go to the ED afterwards to have them checked. As a rule, take them to the ED if:

  • They have lasting effects from the choking incident, such as a lasting cough, unusual drooling, gagging, wheezing, or trouble swallowing or breathing.
  • They turned blue, or became limp, or passed out during the choking incident.
  • You suspect they might have swallowed a small object, such as a toy or button battery.

Any of these things might show that they’ve suffered ongoing harm (or could suffer it from something they’ve swallowed), and you should take them to the ED and get them checked out as soon as possible.

Child choking first aid

There are a number of things you can do to be prepared for the possibility of a child choking. The first thing – as mentioned above – is to minimise risks by cutting up food and removing choking hazards around the home. But another very useful option is to invest a day or so in getting proper, professional first aid training. First aid courses cover choking for a range of ages as part of their regular content, and first aid trainers are generally available to answer questions specific to your situation.

You can also consider getting specialised anti-choking equipment – such as the LifeVac, which are designed to quickly and safely extract blockages from a person’s airways, and has been shown to be highly effective for children.

Article by Lochy Cupit
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